Thursday, August 30, 2012
THREE of the four Ugandan combat helicopters enroute to Somalia crashed in Mt Kenya on August 12.
Seven of the 28 Air Force officers who had been deployed to provide aerial combat against the al Shabaab in Mogadishu died. But 21 officers lived to tell the tale. A Saturday Vision reporter caught up with one of them, who explained how the helicopters failed amid heavy rainfall and how they walked over 25 miles through Mt Kenya’s lion-infested jungles.
When the chief of defence forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima, flagged us off for duty on August 7, we were all confident and brave. We had fought numerous wars in Soroti, Garamba, northern Uganda and the Central African Republic. So, we knew we would succeed.
On the fateful day, we safely set off from Soroti Airstrip. It was all bliss when we landed at Eldoret and later at Nanyuki Airstrip for refuelling. We left Nanyuki a few minutes after 4pm and headed for Garissa.
As usual, the helicopters were flying in a combination. Normally there is rainfall on Mt Kenya in the afternoon. So, in the middle of the journey, high up on the southern side of Mt Kenya, heavy rain started and the helicopters could not go through. They were diverted to a different side of the mountain, which unfortunately, though devoid of rain, was a high altitude area.
That is when all hell broke loose. When we got into the high altitude, the helicopters’ combination was confused.
We lost touch with the lead Mi-17 utility helicopter because unlike the combat choppers, it could fly at higher altitude even in bad weather.
Each pilot had to struggle on his own. At the high altitude, the engines slowed down and the power reduced. But there were no vibrations. The pilot struggled with the helicopter, trying to recover and return to Nanyuki, in vain. Then he announced, “The helicopter has failed. lt is going down. Let everyone pray.”
After failing to return to Nanyuki, he struggled to ensure that at least we could land somewhere safe. We all went mum. Each of us prayed differently. l asked God to enable us to land and die in a safe place so that our bodies could be found. I looked down and saw a deep valley full of water. I asked God not to let us die in that valley because then the helicopter would catch fire and our bodies would burn to ashes.
The pilot deserves credit, he struggled until he managed to dodge the valley. We crash landed on a somewhat bare ground. The helicopter overturned, hanging on a cliff. Smoke started coming out, a sign that the helicopter was about to catch fire. Our engineers moved swiftly and managed to switch off the engine and all the batteries.
When the smoke stopped, we got the three guns and started walking. The place was a gorge. So we moved towards the hilltop, thinking it would be easier for the rescue team to locate us there. After one hour, it became so dark and we could not walk any more, although some of us wanted to continue.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of ice on top of the mountain and we could not retreat downwards. Yet, save for the army uniforms, none of us hard a jacket. We slept on the ice. We kept waking up each other in the middle of the night fearing that we could die due to freezing. In the morning, we were frozen and hungry. Our fingers were numb and our stomachs vibrated due to frigidity.
Life in the jungle
We checked the global positioning system and realised we were 19 miles to Nanyuki Airstrip, a distance we were confident of walking.
At about 8am, we started trekking. Four miles down the mountain, we entered a thick, virtually impenetrable bamboo forest.
Wild animals like elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos prowl this forest. And the only routes there were of these animals. Without any option, we followed the routes where lions and elephants had passed, thinking they would lead us through the forest. With the three guns we had, we were prepared to scare away any animal that would cross our way.
The routes were meandering and confusing, so we kept rotating, sometimes returning to the same places where we started from.
Sometimes, we would hear the helicopter atop the forest searching for us.
But they could not see us because of the thick canopy, yet we did not have means of communication to direct them.
In the evening, we were so hungry, but we had to endure because there was no food. As we were planning to sleep, we heard sounds from baboons.
We were afraid so we decided to sleep in a circle, a technique known as ‘rounded defence’ in the army. Those who had guns slept apart from the others. That night, we saw some light from a distance, about 10km away from where we slept. The following day we resolved to follow a straight line towards where the lights were. We woke up so hungry at about 6.30am.
We saw some bamboo shoots, which had been eaten by baboons.
We realised we could not die if we ate the same. And that was our food that day. We drew drinking water from the streams in the mountain.
After eating, we embarked on our journey. We would lose our way and then get back on track.
After making over 25 miles on the third day, we heard helicopters. We gathered in an open space, took off our shirts and started waving in the air so that the rescuers could see us.
The Tropic Air pilot (Ben Simpson) saw us and landed immediately. He took two of us and within a shot while, a Puma helicopter from the Kenyan army also landed and rescued the remaining five to Nanyuki Airstrip. The helicopter came along with medics, who gave us glucose.
At Nanyuki, we were put on drip for rehydration and afterwards, we bathed and rested.
From Nanyuki, we were transferred to Wilson Airport where we boarded a chattered aircraft to Entebbe Military Airbase. At Entebbe, we found everyone crying and we were overwhelmed. I wept because everybody was weeping.
What caused the crash?
The crash was not due to a technical fault. The helicopters were reliable.
There is no way they could have developed technical faults at the same time and place. The same helicopters had been used in combat against rebels in Soroti, northern Uganda, Garamba and CAR.
I am sad because some of our colleagues did not survive. Otherwise, these are challenges we always expect in line of duty.